|Network news in the 21 st century is a frustrating contradiction. Two decades after peaking in audience and arguably in prestige, roughly 20 million people still watch network news most weekday evenings, and another 10 million each morning. The evening and morning news programs are enormously profitable. But evening newscasts have lost half their audience in the last 20 years, and the average age of the evening viewer is 60.
Is the network news division a dinosaur on the verge of extinction? Or will the Internet free the medium, after years of decline, from the limits of an obsolete dinner hour timeslot and an 18 minute newshole and eliminate the competitive advantage cable news has enjoyed of being always on?
This is the first of nine virtual panel discussions of media leaders we will present this summer about different media sectors. For each, we posed a series of questions to leading experts from different industries, assembled their remarks into roundtable format, editing minimally for flow. We will post each virtual roundtable separately, once a week, over the next nine weeks. Click here for a more detailed description on how the roundtables were put together.
The panelists for this roundtable on Network News are :
Tom Bettag, former Executive Producer, Nightline; Executive Producer, Discovery Networks
Jeff Gralnick, 48-year veteran of broadcast news, has worked for all three networks
Andrew Tyndall, Publisher, The Tyndall Report
Neal Shapiro, former President, NBC News
1. How confident are you that in five years all three of the traditional broadcasts networks will still produce a signature evening newscast, and if they do not, what would the impact be on that network and its brand?
Gralnick: Not confident at all. The reasons why are in a piece I wrote for CJR in 2002. I still have small bets outstanding with several “traditional [and] mainstream” friends who insist I am wrong. Their confidence notwithstanding , I remain convinced that the economics of declining broadcast audiences and the power of local stations and station groups are going to mandate at some point that “news at the dinner hour” disappear and be replaced by some other forms the networks will have to invent.
Tyndall: I am absolutely confident that the evening newscast will be produced. I am not so confident that such a newscast will be the network’s “signature” in the sense of its defining news product. Broadcast is more likely to be one medium among many for the network news divisions to disseminate their journalism. In fact, if such a newscast were the network’s “signature” five years from now, that would reflect as a major negative for its brand, since it would reveal that it had missed the importance of an interactive online presence.
Bettag: The death of the evening news was predicted with considerable certainty fifteen years ago. The three will live another five years. They still make a healthy profit, and they give the networks an identity that is essential. Almost all other programs last five years or less.
Shapiro: In five years, I think you will still see all three evening newscasts in existence although I think they will look a little different, perhaps a little less formal, with more clear pushes to the internet. I think the evening newscasts are less a signature than they used to be, especially with the growth of the morning news segment. At the end of the day, the newscast leverages the infrastructure of each news division and with or without an evening newscast, these huge organizations still need to cover the news.
2. Is the future of network television news on television or online, where audiences are younger and TV is not restricted by timeslot?
Bettag: I don’t think this is an either/or. TV will merge with online, become TV on demand, subscription TV, customized TV. News can exist in that climate, but TV will stop being the national forum, the common denominator that it has been until now.
Shapiro: I think the future of TV news is online and on the phone and on the PDA and on any remote device.
Tyndall: In the future when people use the word “television” they will refer to that part of online content that is in an audio-visual format and is seen on a installed (rather than handheld) screen. The method of delivery of the signal (broadcast or cable or satellite or fiber-optic or whatnot) will not matter. No television will be restricted by timeslot as the signal will go through a DVR-style device. All age groups will watch television in this fashion, young and old.
Gralnick: Current research for the news websites suggests that the audiences are not younger and pretty much mirror traditional audiences. At one recent media symposium, an executive from NYTimes.com pointed out that the Times’ web users were three years older, on average than the print readers. The younger Internet audience is consuming non-news sites. Attracting them will be the challenge.
3. How much confidence do you have that traditional mainstream media organizations will survive and thrive online? And what about the networks in particular. Are they prepared to make the investment that is required to succeed there?
Tyndall: The pitfall facing the networks as they switch to an online environment is not a lack of investment capital, on that attribute, belonging as they do to vast media conglomerates, they have an advantage over their competitors. The pitfalls are more likely to be a lack of nimbleness that comes with such size and the uncertainty about a business model and pricing power. In other words, the risk is foolish investment rather than the lack of it. The Internet, as a medium, demands radically new concepts of mass-vs-niche audiences, of user friendliness, of interactivity, of distributed production, of the demarcation between professional and volunteer work–the list is so long. The television networks, with their vast current audiences on broadcast, their brand identities, and their access to resources (financial, institutional and personal) should be better equipped than their competitors to make the transition.
Gralnick: If they adapt, their brands will survive. The merging of forms being made both possible and necessary by digital and wireless reach, mandates that all of the “traditional [and] mainstream” find ways to distribute themselves in non-traditional ways. Or they will die.
The smart networks will and will see the need to invest ahead of provable or visible Return On Investment. The rest will die.
Shapiro: In the long run, they will have to do that. In the short run, they may not have realized it yet. New media and old media will exist together for a while and the branding of the old media may make the difference about who survives and who doesn’t.
Bettag: I trust that some mainstream media will thrive through the transition. The sense of authority they have built through the years becomes even more important in an age when the Internet is increasingly a source of misinformation. Many organizations will not pass this test. Those that do will become invaluable at times of national emergency when it is critical to be able to get accurate information. Ultimately, the networks will do what it takes to make money. Advertisers are moving to the web. There is money to be made and these organizations do not lack for business savvy.
4. In the long run, looking back, have the networks benefited or suffered from the requirement that each newscast be a profit center unto itself. Put another way, do you think a network is the sum of its parts or something more abstract than that?
Bettag: The networks might have hurt themselves by damaging the credibility of their news divisions. In fact, though, the onslaught of new technology has made this one of their lesser problems, a minor factor in their battle for survival.
Shapiro: Hard to say. Being a profit center has meant many more resources given to news divisions and that is why they have new equipment, high priced talent etc. Since news has made money, it is natural to expect networks to want to maximize it. In the long run, when news did not make money, the notion that a network had a public service to perform was perhaps more obvious but even then, networks have wanted to have important news programming and make money at the same time. That tension existed even before news became a profit center and it would have always been there.
Tyndall: I am not convinced of the premise of the question. A network news division clearly has value greater than the sum of its parts. Inspired management can easily find ways to allocate the cost of investments, celebrity salaries, affiliate relationships, bundled advertising income and so on so that each newscast appears on an accounting spreadsheet as a “profit center” while maintaining the overarching importance of keeping healthy the brand of the news division as a whole.
Gralnick: The flaw in the question is the word “all.” For the networks, special events and breaking news coverage and programming has always been and will always be a loser. So network news divisions are the sum of their parts with the profitable broadcasts making possible the necessary and non-profitable.
The problem is this: Networks are the sum of all their parts so they are placing pressure on their news divisions to return “more to the corporate bottom line.” The drive to meet the corporate mandate means there is less and less of the discretionary breaking news and documentary programming that can be done.
So if the question is, is profit motive a danger the answer is “yes” but without profit motive how does American business function? PBS is the model for the risks to survival associated with non-profit.
5. When conversation turns to the proliferation of new news outlets it seems that we are increasingly talking about politics: liberal vs. conservative. Liberal vs. conservative blogs, editorial pages, talk radio stations, cable networks and, depending on whom you are speaking to, network news programs. Is this something that you think may happen in network broadcast news? If so, why? If not, why not?
Bettag: I don’t think this will happen in the near term. This is happening in peripheral media because they are trying a boutique approach. They make a profit off very small groups who can’t find what they want in the mainstream. The mainstream will still be where the big money lies for broadcasters.
Gralnick: When there was a proliferation of newspapers, the split was clearly Liberal v Conservative. If you lived in New York City you knew which is which and bought and read based on “family values” so what’s new now?
Will we see that in “network broadcast news?” I think the answer there depends on how you define “network broadcast news.” With the proliferation of conservative talk on cable, if a network’s cable arm “goes conservative” or “goes liberal” to meet perceived audience wants, has a shift happened? I’m not sure.
But if the question is will a Bill O’Reilly or a liberal counterpart anchor a network evening news broadcast, I would doubt it until we have reached the true last gasp for that programming form.
Shapiro: I think network news still has to appeal to the widest possible audience and the way to do that is to try to be as conclusive and report without any bias and to work damn hard to keep whatever biases exist out of the story. I don’t think that will change at a network.
Tyndall: I see no impetus towards ideological self-identification at the network news divisions. Their brand depends on presenting themselves as the quintessential mainstream media, addressing the topics of broad interest to civil society in a language that incorporates as wide a spectrum of the body politic as possible.
6. Where are the young people? Jon Stewart—who has said very clearly, over and over again, that he’s not a journalist—has become something of a symbol of how to get younger audiences to watch news. Beyond the sheer entertainment of it, are there lessons here for journalists? Does Jon Stewart have anything to teach the evening news?
Bettag: The young people will come to serious news when they start taking on responsibilities, something they are doing later because they have many more years to live. I love Jon Stewart. I dread the day people try to copy him. I think the lesson to be learned is that what succeeds is imagination, innovation, the willingness to be yourself and thus be authentic.
Shapiro: Jon Stewart has found a great, entertaining way of doing modern social satire and mixing it with very, very little actual reporting. Jon says he thinks his viewers need to get the real news elsewhere. He is right.
Gralnick: To be flip, the lesson Stewart and his network can teach the majors is to put your programming on at a time when it is accessible to the viewers you want. Those desired younger viewers are, “at the dinner hour,” either working, on the way home from work or just home from work and dealing with dinner, children and spouses not seen since departure for the start of the work day. That is where they are.
Perhaps a larger and more difficult lesson is the simple one: Take ourselves less seriously and remember that as soon as we mentally or literally capitalize the first letter in journalism or journalist and react as though we have, we may have started down the path to our own demise.
Tyndall: Stewart’s most explicit intervention into television news was not directed to the networks’ nightly newscasts but to CNN’s Crossfire. His criticism of that show’s format was twofold: it treated message-of-the-day ideological talking points respectfully rather than with the ridicule that hollow sloganeering rhetoric deserves; second, it cast every controversy as a binary Chinese-menu-style conflict between so-called liberals and so-called conservatives. The takeaway from these criticisms apply to journalists generally, not just the evening news, and to citizens generally, not just young ones. Coverage of talking points involves rhetorical decoding (“this formulation was used in order to frame the issue using this spin”) rather than stenography and repetition. Coverage of political coalitions is often more informative when discussing the contradictions and strains within them rather than their stated differences with a rival coalition (in the way that an old-fashioned primary season would often create better political debate than a general election). Stewart has discovered that these two tasks—dissecting rhetoric and exposing fissures underlying surface agreements—can be done neatly by a comedian. There is no reason a journalist cannot do the same thing without sacrificing seriousness or traditions of objectivity.
As for the bigger question of the quest for the young audience, I can only reiterate what the evening newscasts do wrong: air at 6:30pm (too early); sell advertising to pharmaceutical firms (sick wrinkly people whose bodies are falling apart); and, at the margins, engage in demographic targeting in story selection (too much Health & Medicine). The third point is only a nuance and is hardly a factor. The first and second problems can be solved by the looming online innovations—timeshifting, ad stripping, unbundling—discussed earlier.
7. One broad trend we sense in the media culture is the paradox of more outlets covering fewer stories. As the audiences for particular news outlets shrink, newsroom resources are then reduced, but these outlets still feel compelled to cover the big events of the day. The result is more outlets covering those same “big” events and fewer are covering much beyond that as much as they once did. How do you view this trend?
Bettag: As unimaginative as this is, I still think the viewer has more options, more chances to seek out a wider range of stories than he ever has. The explosion of outlets assures that.
Where this trend does damage is to the credibility of the mainstream media. It becomes obvious to the viewers that the news organizations are following some kind of research, that they are making decisions by watching the weathervane. In most cases it becomes quite clear that it is being driven by advertising demographics. Viewers detect the same lack of leadership, the same lack of vision that makes them so distrustful of politics by poll.
Tyndall: I do not see this trend as a problem for the network nightly newscasts, since their role, perhaps uniquely in American journalism, is to cover the “big events of the day” first and foremost. So it is nonsensical to worry about these newscasts devoting disproportionate resources to their core mission.
Gralnick: True, more outlets but once upon a time when it was just wire services and newspapers, when a major story broke, they all covered that major story. What we see today is the appearances of sameness because we have access to it all at once. News is news and the major stories will be covered by all.
Shapiro: I think this will continue but be balanced as news organizations try to find other ways to distinguish themselves…so they will try to find exclusive angles or better analysis on the big stories of the day.